Neil Young once described Jimi Hendrix by saying “...there was no one even in the same building as that guy" and I always thought that was about as good a descriptor of musical genius as you could ever ask for. After watching the lively JACO: The Film, though, I’m thinking Shakey might’ve been off by one since bassist Jaco Pastorius was maybe just one floor down in that otherwise empty skyrise he was talking about. Like Jimi, Jaco was born with an innate ability to turn his instrument into an otherworldly tool of musical expression, somehow tapping into and becoming a conduit for his interior world. Jimi’s name gets kicked around a few times in the film and, based on the concert footage and album tracks that are peppered in throughout, it’s honestly not hyperbole. Everyone with a set of functioning ears knows who Hendrix was but, sadly, few people know the ultimately tragic story of Jaco, which is why Stephen Kijak and Paul Marchand’s film is a godsend and well worth taking the time to sit down with.
The downside of approaching Jaco’s story from the vantage point of a musician, with an eye for exposing the nuances of the craft, is that some of the more personal aspects of the bassists history end up getting glossed over in favor of lionizing stories from the studio and out on the road. His two marriages are discussed, and his children are interviewed, but the possible narrative depths there still end up feeling skipped over for the most part, and the emotional ramifications are hardly explored at all. The filmmakers are clearly more comfortable presenting Jaco the musician, but when a bit more nuance is required to dig into the complexities of a man who only at the end of his life was correctly diagnosed with bipolar disorder, JACO: The Film falls apart a bit. It’s clear that everyone involved in making the documentary had a tremendous admiration for the man, but they all sort of dance around the intensity with which he alienated those closest to him and the tragicness of the months before he was literally beaten into a coma, one he would never come out of, by a bouncer outside of a nightclub. Not quite nailing the tonal shift into talking about mental health is totally forgivable in the big picture, but the end result just ends up feeling a bit unbalanced.
As someone wholly uninitiated to Jaco Pastorious, JACO: The Film was an excellent intro into the undeniable genius of a profoundly talented artist. I can’t help but be fascinated by the guy and I’m truly intrigued to learn more about his life and legacy or, at the very least, fall into a youtube hole of his live performances. The footage of Jaco performing is absolutely incredible, and bums me out that I’m only just now really seeing him in action. I’ve spotted his self-titled album in jazz sections for years but never expected such wild antics from the chill lookin dude sleepily gazing out at the world from the cover. Throwing his bass all over the place, playing it while it’s on the ground to get his famous harmonics just right, doing flips and snatching karate jumps from the Diamond David Lee Roth playbook, Jaco was a powerful full on punk rock force on stage in his prime. Jaco cracked open the possibilities of what a bass guitar was capable of, and you this is a great place to dive in if you need a place to start.
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.
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